Sex-trade bills seek to solve legal dilemma

By Teresa McDonald

Prostitutes, MPs, and social workers blame Canada’s Criminal Code for violence and exploitation in the sex trade but the jury is still out as to whether the solution is decriminalization or legalization

Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies wants to create a committee to review the solicitation laws she says are failing to improve the safety of communities and pushing prostitutes into unsafe situations.

Currently, there are no statutes prohibiting the exchange of money for sex, but under the Canadian Criminal Code public solicitation, keeping a common bawdy house, pimping, and soliciting sex from children are all criminal offences.

“Prostitution is not even on the street. Because of federal laws, women get in cars to set up their deals and end up being driven away. We need to stop the hypocrisy, prostitution is not illegal and most municipalities are turning a blind eye to the street level sex trade,” Davies says.

Two years ago, Ottawa Centre Liberal MP Mac Harb proposed a bill that would give municipalities the option to set up “red light” districts.

Harb says legalizing prostitution would be a “win-win” situation because “it would allow health inspectors to investigate and would remove the abuse element caused by pimps. Plus, it would allow the city to collect taxes on licenses. We either go all the way or go nowhere.”

But Davies argues Harb’s bill “is just passing the buck and taking the debate in a direction that won’t accomplish anything.”

Valerie Scott is spokesperson for Sex Professionals of Canada, a group of sex trade professionals lobbying for rights of prostitutes who echoes Davies’ concerns.

“The right wing views us as villains and the left wing views us as victims,” she explains.

We need the government to remove statutes from criminal law, but after that they can just butt out. Decriminalization views prostitution as a legitimate business activity whereas legalizing would only make the situation worse because it views prostitution as a vice that needs to be contained and controlled, the sex trade is not inherently dangerous, the laws are to blame for the 63 women missing in Vancouver.”

While Davies’ motion is largely driven by a desire to improve the safety of prostitutes after 63 women involved in sex trade went missing in her Vancouver East riding, Ottawa is no stranger to violence.

Rachael Crowder works at the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre and has seen multiple examples of women beaten up, sexually assaulted, robbed and raped. But she says it’s hard to gather statistics because prostitutes are afraid to report such crimes.

“Often these women have criminal records so when there is a case of violence they won’t go to the police for help. The attitude of many police and primary health care workers is to say ‘what do you expect,’ but the bottom line is violence against prostitutes is violence against women,” she says.

Although the government is far from making any changes to the way it handles prostitution, Davies says her motion is getting a positive response.

“There is no recipe, but we need to provide resources to women in their living environment. These women are cut off and don’t have access to the same services because of social stigmas.”